Silica Safety Doesn’t Have to Be a Burden

May 24, 2016

6 Min Read
Silica Safety Doesn’t Have to Be a Burden
Industrial vacuum systems can help expedite compliance to the new OSHA crystalline silica standards.

In late March 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released Standard 29 CFR 1910.1053 for silica removal. The stipulations set by the new standard are extremely aggressive and are the result of years of research and discussion. The short time frame companies have been given to comply, together with the fact that the acceptable levels of silica now need to be cut in half in all facilities, has translated into a rigorous debate as to what the new guidelines mean for individual companies and industries alike. Some company owners may even wonder where all of this concern is coming from. However, this is not the first time that silica has been targeted as a health hazard for laborers.

An Unnecessary Burden?
Companies in the impacted industries (brick, construction, ceramics, pottery, foundries), particularly the smaller companies, feel that the new standard is too aggressive and will present too much of a financial burden. The Brick Industry Association drafted proposed letters that members could send to Congress noting that previous data indicated laborers in the brick industry were exposed to the standard amount of silica but were not experiencing lung cancer or silicosis. Their sentiment is that lowering the amount of silica that workers can be exposed to is an unnecessary expense as employee health is not being affected.
Compliance requires new ways of operating a business in many ways and does indeed involve increased expenses. Employers are required to educate the work force about all of the new rules and regulations. Companies must monitor exactly how much silica employees are exposed to during a standard eight-hour shift, and health records for all employees need to be maintained and evaluated with greater scrutiny, especially if new cases of silicosis or lung cancer are found. Even the way facilities are cleaned needs to change.
Until now, facilities have instructed workers to remove silica with either a broom or a shovel. Sometimes air hoses have also been utilized to move silica from one area to another before it is removed. The new, significantly decreased Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) no longer allows for these methodologies because they spread silica particulates beyond areas that would ordinarily be protected. Silica must now be contained. This will require new cleaning methodologies and/or an increase in the usage of respirators.
Companies are wondering how and why silica became such a concern.  There is a shared feeling that trying to maintain compliance with all of the new rules will actually impact productivity, which could really hurt some family-owned businesses. The fact is, though, silica has been an issue for centuries.

A Long History
According to the website, concerns about silica actually date back to 1700. Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini noticed that stonecutters were more likely to get what we now call silicosis. Other alarms went off throughout the next couple of centuries, but it took a significant event to truly drive the dangerous situation home. Again according to, hundreds of workers actually died of silicosis while working on the Gauley Bridge Tunnel Project in West Virginia in the 1930s. Over 1000 more were diagnosed with the disease over the next two years. It became clear that workers exposed to silica in various forms were at high risk for silicosis and lung cancer. The 2016 OSHA standard is actually the end result of decades of efforts from government officials to try to protect workers in the construction industry and those who work with silica in enclosed plants, factories, and foundries.

Silica, Silica Everywhere
The OSHA Standard is in regard to crystalline silica specifically. This includes quartz, cristobalite, and tridymite. Cristobalite is very similar to quartz but varies in molecular structure. Tridymite is another form of quartz that can often be used in scientific analysis. Cristobalite and Quartz are the most common forms of silica that are used industrially. It is important to note that lake sand consists of 90% quartz or more.
The difficulty with the new PEL set by the 2016 final OSHA standard is that it is half of the current PEL. That means that industries that work directly with quartz or sand will be the most directly impacted by the new regulations. These industries include the brick industry, foundries, ceramic, advanced ceramics, glass, and pottery.

A Sweeping Solution
Many of the work place changes that are necessary in the wake of these new standards simply have to be worked on until they become an every-day part of life. There are no short cuts in terms of monitoring the health of employees. There is one area, however, where efficiency and effectiveness can be maximized in short order.
As mentioned previously, the new OSHA standard requires that brooms and shovels can no longer be used to clean or remove silica from facilities. A viable, cost-effective way to clean plants and foundries while complying with the new regulations is to use an industrial vacuum system that interfaces with the plant’s central manifold system. Several manufacturers make these kinds of systems. When deciding which model in which to invest, consider the following:

• Does the system vent air outside of the plant? If so, this will get the EPA involved. Look for a system that recycles cleaned air into the existing plant atmosphere.

• Look for an excellent air-to-cloth ratio. This, in addition to a HEPA filter, will ensure that the facility is being cleaned of silica particles and other harmful substances.

• Look at safety features. Is the unit easy to monitor in case there are issues?

• Ease of use is key. Employees are already being asked to do their jobs in new ways. The new industrial vacuum system should be a welcome release versus a new burden.

Using an industrial vacuum system may require less need for respirators and will certainly result in an easier path to compliance with the new OSHA guidelines.
There is no question that companies will have a lot on their plates as they move to significantly lower the amount of silica to which workers are exposed. While this is the hot issue today, there are likely to be other safety issues in the future that will require just as many changes and adjustments. While preparing for the 2017-2018 silica removal deadline, it is best to also update company policies so that further changes can be more easily met in the future. Nothing is more important than the safety of employees, but keeping them safe does not have to be a burden.
Dan Coley is president of Hi-Vac Corp., headquartered in Marietta, OH. For more information, visit


New OSHA guidelines will restrict the use of brooms and shovels to clean facilities.

Industrial vacuum systems can help expedite compliance to the new OSHA crystalline silica standards.


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